Pop-Ups Zan was invited by the kind folks of Our Kids Social to host a celebratory pop-up adventure playground in a location that was new to her. She was able to recruit Luke Sutton – one of our PDC tutors – to co-playwork with her and together they managed a very busy 2-hour play space. Luke reflects on the experience and highlights the jubilee event at a market square in Sale, Manchester.

The scene unfolds with a hamlet of humans and a kaleidoscope of castles. Despite switching those adjectives, the square bustles with life and activity. Stalls and a brass band briefly pass through in the background. In the centre of the square, a singer captivates the audience as a hurricane of bubbles erupts from somewhere within the crowd. In the foreground, a collection of hovels forms a hamlet, and a kaleidoscope of kids adds to the vibrant atmosphere.

The pop-up event unfolds around a graceful tree, nearly invisible as one’s eyes fixate on the captivating play. In the background, a father and daughter engage in a playful chase, taking turns with a set of keys bound and rattling on a green loop. In the mid-ground, two robots engage in a lively duel, and a child, clad in an orange t-shirt with wrists adorned with small boxes, emits unintelligible screams. With sword in hand, the only certainties are the high stakes of their quest and the dramatic events that unfold. And, in the foreground, Vanelope. Dearest Vanelope.

“Vanelope by day, Zorro by night”

One arm of wood, legs replaced by a reel and the only memory of her hair being the stamps tape have left behind. Or is it tape? I’d have felt rude asking her. She shimmers regardless, multiple materials of different feels and colours adorn her and, her porcelain complexion is made only the more striking by the crayon scrawled across her face. Light orange under the eyes, and a deep blue Z squarely on her forehead. Does it stand for Zan, or something else? Vanelope by day, Zorro by night. And, lest we forget the sieve that rests atop her head.

adventure play kids playground

She, a mannequin to be clear, sits, or rather rests, centre stage. The scenery to her act is a flourishing ecosystem of play. Cardboard boxes erected, decorated, abandoned and reinvented. What’s more, this ecosystem expands and contracts as the boxes and materials shift alongside the children’s adventure play needs. Like an organ or a city and, its life and death, its rise and fall, spans only two hours. It nearly expanded into Wilkos at one point.

A New Friend

Within all of this, there is a silent short film shot, a film of discovery and personification. Amidst a background of enchantment, Zan and I observe one little girl discovering Vanelope.

She emerged from her cardboard fortress and paused for a moment, seemingly only just noticing the mannequin right next to her. I think it was that focused pause that caught my attention. After tentatively approaching and a few cursory touches to Vanelope’s non-wooden arm, the little girl reached for the mannequins hand. It held a second set of keys, bound by a rainbow ribbon but, reaching for the hand itself, it seemed more a test to see how tangible the humanoid figure was.

Getting To Know Vanelope

And, with reality confirmed, the little girl stood tall and began to inspect the face. She reached out for the sieve on Vanelope’s head and it swiftly slid off of her dome. But, as though she were obliged to, the little girl then spent a lot of time trying to replace the makeshift hat onto its owners head. This happened at least twice during the whole encounter, as it slid off easily, and it struck me that perhaps the little girl had really personified Vanelope. It was the care and tenderness of her actions that gave me this impression. Treating this franken-mannequin differently to how the cardboard boxes and the Union Jack flags of the day had been treated.

Eventually, however, she gave up restoring the sieve onto Vanelope and carefully placed it on the floor aside her. And, after a touch of the arm she took a step back and looked at the mannequin. The hundreds of adults in the square and the cacophony of play around her seemingly amounted to shadows dancing on a wall; the little girls attention looked still focused only on this newest encounter.

It was that second pause that got me. The little girl rubbed Vanelope’s eyes and then tried to stick two fingers up her nose! She shook the mannequins hand once more and, still in silence, began to turn to return to the castle she had built. Only, as she did, another child came over and began to interact with Vanelope. The little girl stopped and watched this new child. I couldn’t say concerned but, definitely attentive. Definitely monitoring how this newcomer interacted with their new discovery.

I don’t know what thoughts were behind those pauses and those touches but, despite being surrounded by cascading play frames within a square of activity, it was that singular small encounter with the little girl that has stood out.

No doubt there were countless others I never even noticed.

By Luke Sutton